Unfortunately I am away during Annabel’s from Annabel’s House of Books reading week for Beryl Bainbridge: Reading Beryl but after falling in love with this author’s writing through Harriet Said, I put one on my 20 Books of Summer 2016! list.
An Awfully Big Adventure is set in 1950s Liverpool, a landscape still filled with rations and other post-war deprivations and the theatre. What a mix for this coming of age novel through less than rose-tinted glasses. It is therefore no surprise that Bainbridge chose to borrow her title from the classic play by J.M Barrie, Peter Pan where Peter has a throw-away line:
‘To die would be an awfully big adventure.’
With the title borrowed from a story about a boy who doesn’t want to grow the protagonist, Stella of Bainbridge’s creation is sixteen, far from grown up, yet with her first job as a stage hand in the theatre thrust amongst grown-up lives, a world she struggles to understand.
The setting is brilliant, the boarding house (and its occupants) is easily pictured amongst the bomb scarred streets and the lodgers who bear their own scars from the war. It was Stella’s Uncle Vernon who first proposed working at the Playhouse. Here is a man who champions her to the hilt while she, as is so often the attitude of girls this age, is embarrassed by absolutely everything about him. Despite the way he brags to his boss he is also worried and exasperated by her:
“Debating anything with the girl was a lost cause. She constantly played to the gallery. No one was denying she could have had a better start in life, but then she wasn’t unique in that respect and it was no excuse for wringing the last drop of drama out of the smallest incident.”
Vernon’s wife Lily is a more shadowy figure, forever at the edge of Stella’s life although towards the end of the book she ponders that:
‘it was unjust of her to disregard those thumb-sucking years in which Lily had held her close’
But away from the prying eyes and ears of Uncle Vernon and Lily, Stella visits the phone boxes around the theatre to ring her mother. The reader hears Stella reporting to her mother, but we only get to know that mother says ‘the usual things’
So it’s fair to say Stella is typical of her age, no more so when she develops a crush on the handsome director Meredith Potter, who at first pays her some attention but this is soon diverted by others. Ever the mimic Stella tries out a number of personas on him to try to recapture his interest, but it seems that her love is to go unrequited. In parallels to the play they are putting on at the Liverpool Playhouse when Stella arrive, one that Stella pronounces simplistically the plot is all about people loving someone who is in love with someone else, perfectly sums up the cast. There is much to love in the book as a whole, the symmetry being one of the biggest pleasures for me. The set-up at the beginning of the book which only becomes clear at the very end, is an example of the excellent structure that resounds throughout.
Although this reads a little more like a series of vignettes at first, the linking only truly becoming apparent at the end, individually as well as together each of these is vivid and simply fascinating. Fairly early on I realised that what is blatantly obvious to the reader has completely passed Stella by, and so only the sternest heart can’t overlook her slightly odd manner and have a little sympathy for the poor girl! But when she decides to make Meredith jealous, she sets in chain a sequence of events that slowly becomes apparent, making for a sublime ending.
I am now a firm Beryl Bainbridge fan, I love the darkness, the cleverness, the period details and the sardonic humour. Luckily, I have another title waiting to read on my bookshelf. I simply can’t believe it took me quite so long to discover such this national treasure.